OMAHA, Neb. – As he immersed himself in becoming the most-decorated and fabled Olympian since Leonidas of Rhodes won wreaths in 12 events over four ancient Olympiads, Michael Phelps was repressed in virtually every other way.
The tunnel-vision dedication that enabled him to win 22 medals, including 11 individual and seven relay gold medals, was literally single-mindedness.
He became as one-dimensional as Flat Stanley, an insulated, isolated automaton, stranded in his own personal biosphere.
He seldom engaged or even really knew others around him in the pool and rarely read a book. He virtually never deviated from being “on message” to share spontaneous thoughts of his own.
He was a captive of his own success, really, rich and famous beyond what few could fathom yet condemned to not knowing who he was out of his element — on land, basically.
Something had to give, and hints of that bubbled up after he achieved the incomprehensible, inimitable quest of winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Suddenly, Phelps was like Robert Redford’s Bill McKay character after winning a Senate race at the end of the movie, “The Candidate,” wondering “What do we do now?”
That manifested publicly when Phelps in 2009 was captured in a photo smoking from a marijuana pipe at a small party, illuminating both an escape valve for him and the fact that he could be betrayed by anyone he might have thought he could trust.
It also surfaced in how he prepared for the 2012 London Olympics, a period marked by bitter battles with coach Bob Bowman and apathy.
“I just didn’t want to do it. That’s it … ,” he said Saturday on the eve of his fifth U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. “I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing. I sure as hell wasn’t training. We all saw that.
“I tried to fake it, pretty much. That’s what I was doing.”
Miserable with swimming after somehow salvaging four golds and two silvers in London, he meant it when he said he was through with the Olympics.
Trouble was, nothing else moved him, either — unless you count poker and golf.
And he was ill-equipped for not going from meet to meet and event to event as he had his entire conscious life.
Gripped by binge issues with alcohol even as he resumed swimming, Phelps in September 2014 was arrested and charged with his second DUI.
But that was just the bleeding the public saw, not the torment he was feeling within.
“I was going (down) fast. Fast,” he told NBC’s Today show in April. “Honestly, I sort of at one point … felt like I didn’t want to see another day — felt like it should be over.”
It was touching bottom, it turned out, that propelled him to a new life.
Or at least it was the start of some fresh perspective.
Shortly after his arrest, Phelps underwent 45 days of inpatient treatment at The Meadows, a facility in Arizona, where he found himself unlocking and opening up to those around him and embracing family he had been stiff-arming.
At the U.S. Olympic media summit in March in Los Angeles, he said he had been alcohol-free for nearly 18 months.
“It’s pretty crazy how big of a change I see from not having a drink … I see a complete change in my body; I see a complete change in how I am day to day,” said Phelps, noting his “completely clear head” and adding, “I’m actually able to be productive. Every day. That’s something I am very proud of.”
If skeptics might wonder about the new narrative, it’s at least superficially easy to see the difference in him now.
On Saturday at the CenturyLink Center and at the media summit, Phelps seemed to speak with a candid ease and welcome questions from a group that he laughingly said was used to him dodging whatever he was asked.
The cue he gave apparently was no longer just to funnel questions through the filter in his force-field he’d employed about every time you’d see him from 2004 through 2012.
“I think you saw how difficult it was to not share anything for so many years,” he said in Los Angeles, smiling and adding, “Ask anything, I’ll give you my honest answer. This is who I am, and I don’t have anything to be afraid of or anything to hide from.”
So he told of being a homebody with fiancée Nicole Johnson and happily training 30 hours a week again and being more engaged in everything he does now.
He spoke of how he now actually picks up the phone when it rings instead of constantly shutting out the world — a notion symbolically reflected in the reconciliation he has come to know with his long-estranged father, Fred.
“Just living a freer, happier life now … ,” he said at the media summit. “I don’t feel like I’m carrying weights around anymore.
“Whatever I’d been holding inside of me, I’ve been able to get it out and was able to start fresh, and that’s a pretty incredible feeling.”
As he spoke that day, he was anticipating another incredible feeling and change: fatherhood, which began on May 5 when Johnson gave birth to son Boomer — whose middle name, Robert, honors Bowman.
On Saturday, he marveled at watching Boomer (inspired by, though not necessarily a tribute to, Boomer Esiason) put on weight and grow hair and seeing his eyes start to change color.
He laughed at the thought of a photo of Boomer on his chest, both asleep on a couch with their mouths open.
“When I’m holding him or (lying) on the couch with him, it’s just awesome being able to welcome a new person into the world,” he said, later adding, “I’ve learned which cry means what. If he needs a diaper change, if he needs mom, all of these different cries.”
All of which has left him going from crying for help himself to a sense of serenity entering trials in which he actually wants to take part.
He’s in the best shape physically he’s been in in years, though as he turns 31 this week it remains to be seen exactly how that translates to performance and recovery here as he is scheduled to compete in five events.
But more to the point of ending his career the way he wants to, Phelps found himself in the warm-down pool earlier in the day goofing around and laughing with Ryan Lochte and Elizabeth Beisel.
“And it was actually enjoyable,” he said, sounding like this was a revelation. “It wasn’t like a fake laugh, or this or that. I was actually enjoying myself, and we were telling jokes with one another.
“That’s what I didn’t have in 2012. That was nowhere to be found.”
That’s just one of the ways that this last time it’s more about the journey than the destination.
He can live with what comes now, he says, because he has a vision of himself beyond swimming as a father and a husband-to-be and an emotionally freer person.
He’ll still have to face life after his career, of course, whether it’s after Omaha or, more likely, Rio.
But this time it will be a more whole being that is confronting that void, one who expects maybe some of it will be filled through coaching, as he has begun doing and is committed to continue with Bowman at Arizona State for the 2016-2017 season.
Not that he’s entirely ready-made for that.
“I think my advice is he’s going to have to be a little more patient,” Bowman said, smiling and adding that he’s told Phelps, ‘It takes a little longer with mere mortals than it might take someone of your ability.’ ”
This swimming immortal, though, also has learned he’s flesh and blood in the real world.
It was a long time coming, and it’s with all the vulnerabilities and trappings anyone might face with their own particular challenges.
And maybe there was a better path to the discovery.
Just the same, Phelps will tell you that the pain of the last few years has “helped me transform to me just being me” and that he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m thankful,” he said in Los Angeles, “I’m sitting here alive today.”
And he could have meant that in any number of ways.